“The other reason we called it ‘Freaks’ was because we always get called freaks, the escape party from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, stuff like that. When we play live, everybody dwells on the fact that I’m thin with specs, Russell looks like Count Dracula, Candida although she’s 23 looks 14, while Pete looks like a football hooligan. We were always getting called freaks so we thought let’s call the LP ‘Freaks’ just to… put two fingers up.” – Jarvis Cocker, Sounds, 27th June 1987
Are you normal or are you weird? It’s a question we’ve all had to answer at one time, usually in high school. And then you have to decide whether you’re one or the other. Sometimes it’s easier just to go with the flow – being a freak is, in a way, a liberating experience. You can do whatever you like and people will pay attention to you. Take this to its logical extreme and eventually you’re a sideshow attraction. Come and see the freak, kids! This could’ve been you if you’d been unlucky / lucky / clever / stupid / different. Of course, if you’re just trying to be yourself (that being the normal state of things) then this can all be a bit too much to take.
‘Fairground’, the opening track on Freaks, presents the group as a particularly unpleasant carnival sideshow act. It’s not exactly an easy listen. Every note, from the woozy fairground organ to the distorted screaming and the way it keeps shifting into unexpected keys seems to be designed to make this listener confused and uncomfortable. Russell’s intention was always to weed out the more casual or conservative listeners, and he must have been successful here. Despite the poor quality of the recording, this cacophony is intentional, and had been planned for years.
That isn’t to say that the recording session was a success. ‘Freaks’ is the very definition of a poorly produced album. The limited time and resources availiable meant that moreorless everything was a rough first take, and no song suffered more than Fairground. The night after the recording Jarvis lay in bed groaning with embarrasment at the memory of his studio-improvised ‘carny’ announcements in the instrumental section and swore he would remove them the next day.* Arriving back at the recording studio they found that the masters had already been wiped. The unsatisfactory rough mix was to be the only version recorded.
So far, so bad then. But Fairground is actually very successful in acheiving what the group set out to do – whether that corresponds to anyone’s idea of ‘good music’ or not. Russell’s monologue alone is magnificently theatrical and creepy, a song-length summary of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. The narrator keeps switching between a demented ringmaster and a bewildered spectator, taking a tour around a selection of fairground oddities**, but the astonishing thing is that nothing actually happens – nothing worse than being subjected to ridicule at least. Yet there’s an overwhelming sense of “something wrong here.”
The evil circus trope is one we’re all familiar with, and its signifiers sound obvious enough to make it into a particularly specialised sub-genre. Waltz time, a fairground organ playing simple scales, slightly out of tune, evil laughter. So when I set out to make a mix of the best of this music I was surprised at how few musicians could carry it off without sounding corny and fake. Nox Arcana were particularly disappointing. The best of what I could find is gathered on this podcast. Listen to it at your own risk (of being mildly irritated).
* His vocals are actually fairly good. You’d have thought they’d have been embarrassed about a few other things though.
** Are the “three identical sisters” a reference to Artery’s ‘Into The Garden’? It certainly seems possible.